Ohio's Century Farms: Willow Brook
By SALLY BOYD
WAKEMAN — It’s often difficult to keep secrets in the small communities which dot Ohio’s rural areas, but for Ken Green, of Wakeman, his family has maintained “the best-kept secret” of that north central Ohio region for nearly 200 years.
“We are the best-kept secret in Wakeman. We have really good neighbors,” Green said about his Ohio Century Farm, founded in 1817. “Our neighbor’s farm was also started in 1817.”
Green, who is the sixth generation to farm his family’s Huron County Century Farm, is passionate not only about Willow Brook Farm’s history, but equally so about keeping it going forward. He believes firmly the history will keep going, for generation seven, his son, Kris, 31, is working full-time on the farm, often joined by his son, Ezra, 4.
“Kris handles the mechanical end. I take care of the business end. When it comes to planting or harvesting, we are all out in the field.” Green said.
In addition to Kris, Green has a full-time hired man to assist with the 2,000-acre farm. As with most Ohio farms, Willow Brook sustains itself with crops of corn, soybeans and wheat. Kris also raises a few head of beef for family use. A second son, Keith, is a farrier, and Green has four grandchildren, three girls in addition to little Ezra, who likes to spend time on the farm with his dad and grandfather.
The family’s deep ties to their history is evident in the many items which have been passed down through the seven generations, including an ox yoke, which brought the family founders to Wakeman Township on July 4, 1817.
Independence Day, 1817, was the day Samuel Bristol, his wife, Eunice Sherman, and their son, Nelson, arrived in the Firelands area from Connecticut, becoming the third settlers to take up residence in the region.
The War of 1812 had been raging on. Indians, many of whom lived in Ohio at the time, were a big part of the challenge.
“Who in their right mind would want to come here?” asked Green.
After their marriage, Eunice and Samuel Bristol rented a small farm in Connecticut until he had saved $1,200, allowing the family to move west to uncharted land made available after fires wiped out many of the Connecticut properties. The name “Firelands” came about when the government made available the unsettled territory which became Ohio. After purchasing nearly 497 acres for almost $993, the family loaded their wagon, hitched it to a team of two oxen and, along with one horse, started out for Ohio on May 28, 1817.
They arrived July 4 in Vermilion where Eunice and Nelson resided with acquaintances for a few weeks while Samuel built a log house on the newly purchased property. The house was later replaced by a frame home nearby when Samuel learned a road was to be built from Fitchville to Lake Erie. Samuel also cleared three acres and sowed wheat as his first crop.
When Ken Green looks out from his Fitchville River Road home, he can almost, with great certainty, spot the area along the banks of the Chappell Creek where those first early Bristol homes were erected. Indeed, the farm’s name, Willow Brook, was taken from the clumps of willow trees which once grew thickly along the creek.
A history of Wakeman Township notes that most of the original Bristol land has been owned by their descendants, passing from generation to generation through inheritance. Additional land was later purchased by Samuel Bristol in 1823, and it is on one lot where the first frame house was constructed.
Just prior to 1886, the house was moved by their grandson, Samuel, to make way for a new house — the one adjacent to the road where Ken Green now resides. After 1886, the “old house” was used as storage and as a chicken coop, with a corncrib added to the rear. It was finally dismantled in 1989, but even then gave up a few family secrets as a candlestick holder was found in a second story wall.
In the intervening years of 1817 to 1866, according to a family history compiled by Ken Green’s brother, Dennis, the Bristol families accumulated considerable property as Nelson Bristol grew up and married Julia Sherman. Their son, Samuel B. Bristol and his wife, Louisa M. Gilder became the third generation.
It was this generation of Bristols who built the home on Fitchville River Road where Ken Green grew up and still lives. The Green generations began when Samuel B. and Louisa’s daughter, Hazel, married Ezra R. Green.
That couple’s future was cemented by quite an unusual circumstance around 1910 when a group of young friends were attending a school picnic at nearby Ruggles Beach. Hazel slipped in a hole and went beneath the waves, bobbing up and down until Ezra, described as an “ardent admirer” of Hazel, put his expert swimming skills to use and dove for her unconscious body. Then a student at Ohio State University, Ezra is said to have worked to revive Hazel for one hour, not giving up until she “was out of danger,” an action that, according to the family history, “gradually led to a deeper friendship.” They were married in 1917.
The fifth generation was created when Ezra and Hazel’s son, C. Nelson Green, married Ella Mae K. Read. They became parents of four children, Dennis, Dan, Diane and Ken Green. Today, Ken lives on the family farm, which has expanded considerably from its nearly two century-old roots. He credits his brother, Dennis, with “doing all the work” to get the farm certified as a Century Farm.
As a result, Dennis put together the family history, which features each of the Bristol/Green generations complete with lots of photographs both of the people and the many historical objects which the family has retained.
In 2012, Ken and his older brother, Dan, returned to their original roots in Woodbury, Conn., even meeting the family which now occupies the ancestral home of their great-great-great-grandmother, Eunice Sherman Bristol, and attending a Bristol family reunion.
The pride which Ken Green takes in his family’s heritage is obvious through his “hobby” — restoring the family carriages, which have been kept for so many generations. Four of those have been accurately restored, with much of the work done by the Amish.
The family enjoys dressing up in period costumes and participating in nearby parades, having trained a horse to pull the carriage.
“You can tell it is meaningful to people when we reintroduce our heritage,” Green said.
He also focuses on keeping the family heritage going.
“I love to improve the land,” he said. “To be successful, you have to be efficient. I am a big advocate of subsurface drainage. I also like a good freeze. It helps us fix the mistakes of fall. There are a lot of benefits to a good freeze. It not only kills off bugs, but allows us to work on the land, clearing fence rows and so forth.”
Green has a plan for his own future. He wants to build himself a one-story cabin on the west bank of Chappell Creek so that his son, Kris, and family can move into the family farmhouse.
With all five previous generations of his family buried in the nearby local cemetery where his daughter-in-law is the caretaker, Green, who is not yet ready to quit, has yet another goal — to continue “to instill our heritage in my family” with the hopes that Willow Creek will be in the Green family for decades to come.